Read This: Want an Extreme Close-Up of Ewan McGregor’s Tats? Thank Kat Von D

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Last Sunday, I had my first book review in the Buffalo News in several weeks, and it was a book that surprised me. I would not normally be seeking out anything authored by Kat Von D … But I must admit, I dug it. Read on:

A pop culture pop quiz: Kat Von D is chiefly known for: a.) starring on a popular reality show; b.) having a name that sounds like a disease affecting kittens; c.) being covered with tattoos; d.) having dated fellow reality TV star and national villain Jesse James after his Sandra Bullock break-up, a figure who is to healthy relationships what Amanda Bynes is to rational behavior; or e.) all of the above.

The answer, of course, is all of the above, but now we can add something else, a book for which Von D deserves real praise. The aptly titled “Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing,” written with Sandra Bark, is a 200-page, gorgeously photographed chronicle of tattoo art, and it is a surprisingly involving read.

Kat might be the world’s most renowned tattoo artist. Her cable reality series, “LA Ink,” ran for five seasons, she has authored two best-selling books, and, according to her bio, she even created a makeup line for Sephora, the sweetest-smelling store in many a mall.

“Go Big or Go Home,” interestingly, is less about her, and more about turning the spotlight on others. Call it “Chicken Soup for the Tattooed Soul,” a series of essays in which Kat introduces the reader to some of her clients, discusses their life stories, explains the whys behind their body art, and argues that a tattoo can be truly empowering.

Thanks to the book’s genuinely fascinating portraits, I believe her, despite the fact that I am tattoo-free, and probably always will be – I have difficulty deciding on lunch, let alone what to slap on my arms for the rest of my days.

Consider the case of “Jeffree Star,” an ultra-glam, pink-haired, heavily made-up individual who Kat memorably introduces like so: “Oh Jeffree! Where do I even begin?” Jefree “isn’t afraid of things most people find perturbing. In fact,” Kat explains, “embracing and seeing them as life lessons as opposed to curses are his gift.”

Jeffree’s chest features the faces of Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain (wearing a crown of thorns, with the words “RAPE ME” underneath), and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-era Audrey Hepburn, along with the Mona Lisa, the shark from “Jaws,” and, in a nod to Danny Torrance (and Stanley Kubrick), “REDRUM.”

So far, so relatively normal. But, Kat writes, “With the exception of the Spice Girls … the subjects of Jeffree’s obsession seemed to lean toward portraits of tragic icons.” Wait – the Spice Girls aren’t tragic icons? I suppose not, when compared with JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, Sharon Tate and Elizabeth Short, a.k.a., the Black Dahlia.

On paper, these all sound strange, and, well, they are a bit strange. But Kat sees them as essential to Jeffree’s sense of self. “There is,” she says, “something liberating about embracing your own uniqueness.” She does not delve deeply into Jeffree’s past, but she does indicate that the struggles of his past led to the art adorning his body:

“I think being picked on and even bullied at times for being gay or dressing differently is a big part of why he’s been so outward with his self-expression: his loud hairstyles, extreme makeup, and even all the tattoos he’s collected quickly over these past few years.”

“Duh,” some might say. But “Go Big or Go Home” shouts down that attitude, with authority. Plus, Kat’s got celebrity on her side. One chapter focuses on Obi-Wan himself, Ewan McGregor, and while I had always imagined Ewan with a giant tattoo of the worst toilet in Scotland on his bicep, what he actually has is far more personal:

“His virgin skin was permanently marked with art that represented the most important things in his life, his wife, Eve, and their three daughters. When Ewan and Eve eventually added a fourth little girl to their family, he wanted to add her name to his tattoo.”

It’s an impressive creation, likely the kind of thing that causes nightmares for Hollywood makeup artists. But while the celeb cameos are fun – also included are Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, songwriter Linda Perry, and comedian-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait – it is the “real” people whose stories stand out.

The text is simple, and sometimes surprisingly elegant, but the images are what make “Go Big or Go Home” a worthy creation. Each tattoo tells a story, for the tattooed and for the artist, and even if the book will likely draw in only those already invested in the world of ink, it should still be considered a success.

At the very least, Kat Von D has demonstrated why a tattoo is never simply a tattoo. See that guy, with Alfred Hitchcock on his calf? Yep, there’s a story there.

“Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing”

By Kat Von D

Harper Collins

208 pages, $29.99

Stream This: “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” is a Solid Romantic Comedy

bert and arnie

A quick note this Saturday, on a film you may want to catch on iTunes, etc. It’s an enjoyable, funny little film called “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship,” and it has more laughs than many films I’ve seen this summer. I reviewed it for Indiewire’s The Playlist site — take a look:

Remember these names: Matt Oberg, Stephen Schneider, Anna Chlumksy (if you grew up in the nineties, you already know her), and Cristin Milioti. They are the stars of the horribly titled “Bert and Arnie’s Guide To Friendship,” a new indie that is a bit slight, often funny, mostly likable, and importantly, a romantic comedy that is not obnoxious. Its premise is nothing new, to be sure, but director Jeff Kaplan’s film has more humor and verve than almost every new sitcom that debuted on network television in the past year, and in Oberg, Schneider, Chlumsky, and especially Milioti, it has four fine comic performers who elevate director Jeff Kaplan’s script (co-written with Ian Springer) into a modest success.

Oberg’s B. W. “Bert” Scheering is a full-of-himself college professor and the noted author of a hit novel (title: “The Virgin Monster”) who discovers that his wife is sleeping with Arnie, a womanizing executive with a caddish persona. Bert’s marriage screeches to a halt and thrusts him into the perils of single life, a world Arnie knows well. Playing the author card only gets him so far; even an attempted tryst with Faye (Cristin Milioti – more on her shortly), a deadpan student with a perennially congested-sounding voice who asks Bert to write her a letter of recommendation, proves disastrous, very, very disastrous.)

Meanwhile, Arnie meets his match in the sweet, confident Sabrina, played nicely by Chlumksy, the “My Girl” star who roared into adult roles with Armando Iannucci’s artfully profane political masterpiece, “In the Loop.” (She currently appears on Iannucci’s HBO series, “Veep.”) When Arnie learns Sabrina is a fan of one Bert Scheering, he forces himself back into the author-professor’s life, and the two begin a rocky friendship. As is perhaps evident, there is not a great deal of plot here, really, but thanks to the performances, and some witty dialogue, “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” actually gains strength as it progresses, and culminates in an especially winning final half hour.

While Bert is the film’s ostensible lead – Oberg, whose strait-laced demeanor has led to roles on The Onion’s “News Network” and “Sportsdome” TV series – Arnie is the more difficult role. As played by Schneider he is the pompous womanizer, but an individual also struck by feelings of inadequacy; his bitchy upset at Sabrina for not inviting him to her karaoke party is note-perfect. (“Do you have any Tylenol PM?” he asks an amorous Sabrina with maximum bitchiness.) Both characters are semi-caricatures — Bert the uptight, sexually frustrated author and professor; Arnie the cad who secretly wants a commitment. But the actors make them believable and funny. Even the sorta-kinda friendship that develops between the two over the course of the film makes sense because their elements of each other’s lives that on the surface at least, appear alluring.

Chlumsky’s Sabrina is perhaps a more well-rounded, truly believable character, a smart woman who inadvertently gets caught between B and A, and Cristin Milioti steals every scene she’s in as Faye. The Tony-nominated (for Broadway’s “Once”) actress recently made news as the “mother” in “How I Met Your Mother,” and the wide-eyed “30 Rock” alum takes the film’s most clichéd role and makes her handful of scenes the most memorable in the film. There are a number of other very funny sequences, including Bert’s run-ins with a book critic (played by the smoldering Bree Sharp) and a killer karaoke scene in which Arnie tearfully belts out Marc Cohn’s guilty pleasure soft-rock staple, “Walkin’ in Memphis.” The direction from New York University alumnus Kaplan is mostly unfussy with one big exception, the use of a completely unnecessary interview device that pops up every so often for no apparent purpose. It feels forced, like an unsubtle acknowledgment that there really isn’t much story here.

But the interviews are used sparingly and do not prove overly distracting. Considering the inanity of so many “adult” romantic comedies in the past decade – see the Katherine Heigl oeuvre – the fact that “Bert and Arnie” has a few laughs, some nice performances and does not beat the viewer over the head with a slapstick-lead-pipe means it is a film worthy of respect. It is certainly no masterpiece, and not as memorable as some of this year’s larger scale character-driven romantic comedies (I’m looking at you, “Frances Ha”), but “Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship” offers its share of pleasures. If only there was still time to change that title. [B]

Available June 18 on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Playstation, XBOX, YouTube, Nook, CinemaNow and Vudu; New York City theatrical release from June 21-27.

Weekend Preview: Sarah Polley Explores Her Family’s “Stories” and Channing and Jamie Blow Stuff Up REAL Good

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Walking out of “Godzilla” at Blasdell’s McKinley Mall cinema on May 20, 1998, I made a solemn vow: I would never again pay to see a movie directed by Roland Emmerich on the big screen. In the years that followed, I rented virtually every one of his films — “The Patriot,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “10,000 B.C.,” “2012,” even the interesting but dopey “Anonymous” — and found all but “10,000” a major improvement over the sinfully dreary “Godzilla.”

It is not that Emmerich is untalented, or his work offensive. He is simply irrelevant, anonymous. I give him credit for finding new ways to blow up Washington, but if one is seeking something new, he is not the man to look toward.

His latest, “White House Down,” looks like a preposterous blast, but I can guarantee I will not be racing to see it at the theater. Sure, I’ll rent the Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx “Die Hard”-at-White-House romp, but if I’m going to pay my hard-earned cash, there are plenty of other options, such as …

“The Heat,” for one. For starters, it is directed by Paul Feig, the hilarious director of “Bridesmaids” and one of the minds behind the beloved “Freaks and Geeks.” Then there is the smart pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, one of the more novel buddy-cop duos in recent memory. The trailers look funny, and in a summer of weak-kneed comedy, this could prove a keeper.

In terms of box office, “White House Down” should have no trouble coming in at number one, although I would expect it to open below last week’s number two film, “World War Z.” “The Heat” should follow in the second spot, with “Monsters University” up next. It will be especially interesting to see if “Man of Steel” or “World War Z” slots in fourth. If it is “Z,” then the Brad Pitt-starrer, which opened with more money than expected, can safely be called a lasting success. (Let’s not discuss how much it cost.)

In the world of indies, there are two very different, very interesting films hitting WNY this weekend: Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Ronald F. Maxwell’s “Copperhead.”

Polley, of course, is the fine actress who moved into directing with the stunning “Away From Her” and the flawed but wonderful “Take This Waltz,” a film I despised at TIFF and adored months later. “Stories We Tell,” which debuted in Toronto last September, is a documentary on her mother, and the rumors that surrounded her own birth. It has received a rapturous response, pretty much across the board, and qualifies as a must-see.

Here is a wonderful segment of a Guardian piece on Polley and her acclaimed film:

“Sarah grew up with a family joke that she did not look anything like her siblings. Where did the reddish hair come from? Her mother used to laugh about it. There were other things she did not share with her siblings either. ‘I am highly strung, neurotic about responsibility and punctuality. I am compulsively early –I get to airports three hours early.’ In the film she determines to find out whether the joke has substance, a quest that will eventually lead to a ‘sick feeling of responsibility and an enormous crushing guilt that laid me out for a few weeks. I got really, really ill. It took a friend to clarify for me that finding a story is not the same as creating one.’ George Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.’ In the film, that is what Sarah does.”

Meanwhile, “Copperhead” is the latest Civil War drama from Maxwell, the director of the great “Gettysburg” and the longgg “Gods and Generals.” I have a very personal connection to “Gettysburg” — my father was one of many reenactors who participated in the making of the film, and he can be glimpsed onscreen — but even without that link, I’d call it a very good film, with one of Jeff Daniels’ best performances. I never caught up with the less well-received “Gods,” but “Copperhead” seems an interesting follow-up.

It tells a much less-well-known story from the war between the states, focusing on opposition to the war in an upstate New York town. The cast includes “The Rocketeer” himself, Billy Campbell (who replaced Jason Patric during filming” and Peter Fonda, and it is worth noting that the film’s screenwriter, Bill Kauffman, is a Batavia, New York, native. (Incidentally, I wrote a piece on Civil War films that touches on “Coppherhead” for The Film Stage.)

One other note on “Copperhead”: Kauffman is set for a Q-and-A after screenings of the film this weekend.

Also opening this week, at the Elmwood Regal, is “Raanjhanaa,” a new Indian romantic drama that I must admit I am unfamiliar with. (Here is a Hollywood Reporter review.)

The Screening Room is once again showing Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; it is again followed at 9:20 on Saturday with the noir classic “D.O.A.”

Bacchus takes a few weeks off, returning with “Anchorman” on July 10, while the UB North Campus shows “Despicable Me” on Friday and “Forrest Gump” on Tuesday (July 2), both at 9:15, and the UB South Campus offers my friend Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day” on Wednesday (July 3).

Coming down the pike is “Despicable Me 2,” which I reviewed for the Buffalo News — look for it next Thursday— and Johnny Depp’s wow-this-looks-unappealing “The Lone Ranger.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go ponder why “The Bling Ring” is already disappearing from Buffalo screens …
Photo: Director of Cinematography Iris Ng (left) with Director Sarah Polley (right) in STORIES WE TELL. Credit: Ken Worone.

“Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” are Over, So Start Streaming Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”

top of the lake

We are in the midst of a television renaissance — just about everyone agrees, including Bernardo Bertolucci. Yet I must admit, I’m not watching very much of it. Believe me, I am dying to watch “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” etc., but I am not overflowing with time for all of these, and when I do have time, I try to catch up with some movies.

However, I did watch the recently concluded seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and was riveted by both. “Games” remains the most consistently surprising and involving drama on TV, while “Mad Men” did something pretty extraordinary over the last few months. I maintain that the first batch of episodes of the season were among the worst in the show’s history. The last batch? Undoubtedly among the best. I agree with a coworker, who wished the long episode had been the last of the season, instead of the first.

So my two shows are done. What to watch next, TV-wise? Some of the finest options can be screen on Netflix. Here are a few:

“Top of the Lake”: Jane Campion’s miniseries starring “Mad Men”’s Elizabeth Moss was screened at Sundance and aired on the Sundance Channel, but now it is streaming in full on Netflix. It is hard to argue against classifying Campion as hit (“The Piano,” the underrated “Bright Star”) or miss (“The Portrait of a Lady,” “In the Cut”) but even those misses are fascinating. “Top” was acclaimed by most as one of the hits. Film Comment’s Amy Taubin called this story of a pregnant 12-year-old-girl and a detective’s search for the truth “’Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing.’”

The seven-episode series Top of the Lake, Taubin says:

“[I]s the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”

This sounds like Campion’s most important work in years, and a must-watch.

“Luther”: I can’t say for sure whether this BBC cop drama is more than just another cop show, but I can say its star is Idris Elba, and he is one of the finest we’ve got. Elba is on the verge of a major breakthrough — he appears in the soon-to-be-released “Pacific Rim” and portrays Nelson Mandela in a biopic out later this year — but many know him best from this series. The third season airs this summer.

“The Fall”: Gillian Anderson’s post-“X-Files” career has been quite interesting, especially her turns in Terrence Davies’s “The House of Mirth” and an adaptation of Dickens’s “Bleak House.” In “The Fall,” she plays a detective investigating a series of murders in Ireland, and Anderson plus detective plus murders equals I’ll watch.

“Hemlock Grove”: Eli Roth’s Netflix series received little of the critical love that greeted David Fincher’s “House of Cards,” but that’s alright. The horror series looks like a messy blast, and I like that the second Netflix original series went in such a different direction.

“House of Cards” (BBC): Speaking of “Cards,” the original BBC series is also streaming on Netflix, with Ian Richardson as the lead. It would be fun to compare his performance with Kevin Spacey’s often over-the-top but effective work.

“Arrested Development”: You know about this one. In fact, you’ve probably watched it — perhaps twice. I am working through it slowly, since any show that can show David Cross’s Tobias playing a fetus deserves to be savored.

 

Image from “Top of the Lake” from Indiewire

Wednesday Round-Up: Friedkin’s Failed “Sorcerer,” Cinephilia’s Survival, and Tarkovsky’s Polaroids

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“I was listening to an album by Miles Davis called Sorcerer, with driving rhythms and jagged horn solos that characterized Miles’s band in the late 1960s. We painted the word Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) on the other truck, and I later decided to call the film ‘Sorcerer,’ an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist. The original title I’d proposed was ‘Ballbreaker.’”

So writes director William Friedkin in his recently released career-spanning memoir “The Friedkin Connection.” The book is a must-read for fans of 70s cinema, and an ideal companion to a book I’d imagine Friedkin hates, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” (I briefly discussed the book in a recent buffalospree.com post.)

Whenever I read a book like this, I’m intrigued not by the tales of success — quite frankly, I’ve read enough about the making of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” — but of failure. (That’s why I am dying to find a bio of Michael Cimino.)

Friedkin has had his share, and he goes into great detail about them here. Yes, there is “Cruising,” but he is especially candid about his version of Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear,” titled “Sorcerer.” I rented the Roy Scheider-starring flop a few years ago, and found it taut, well-made, and compelling. (Incidentally, Friedkin still maintains that the film needed a star, and rues the day he spurned Steve McQueen: “I realized a close up of Steve McQueen was worth the greatest landscape you could find.”)

As Friedkin recently explained to Vulture, does not consider “Sorcerer” to be a remake, and in some ways, perhaps Friedkin faced the same issue David Fincher faced with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” As Fincher made clear, and any astute viewer could discern, the first entry in the Lisbeth Salander saga was most certainly not a remake of the popular Swedish version. It was simply another film based on Stieg Larsson’s book.

Friedkin:

“It’s not a remake of ‘The Wages of Fear’! Somebody’s probably doing ‘Hamlet’ somewhere right now; that’s not a remake of ‘Hamlet.’ ‘Sorcerer’ is a new version of a classic story, a novel by a French author named Georges Arnaud. Certainly my film was inspired by Clouzot’s film, which I consider a masterpiece. But then-contemporary audiences in the English-speaking world did not know ‘Wages of Fear’ that well. I felt that the underlying theme, the subject matter, and the characters were important enough to do a new version. Now, did some critics have their knives out? I think that would be to undervalue the nature of film criticism. I would hope not, but you’re posing the question, so it has to be possible. Occasionally, what happens when a filmmaker or artist is extremely successful in a certain period, there do seem to be critics who come out with reevaluations for one reason or another. I do know that I very much thought I was the center of the universe at the time. And a lot of people probably were waiting for me to crash.”

Copyright issues have surrounded “Sorcerer” for years, but it appears the director may finally have his say, with a remastered re-release on its way. There has never been a Friedkin Criterion release, but if ever one of his films cried out for such treatment, it is “Sorcerer.” In fact, there is even a “Sorcerer” blog, which is where the above image came from.

The rest of my Wednesday round-up:

  • Lots of good stuff on Vulture, including the many faces of “Mad Men”’s Ted Chaough (I think he and Harry Hamlin were this season’s unsung heroes), the late Richard Matheson’s classic “Twlight Zone” ep “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in full, and 10 tidbits that did not make it into “The Bling Ring.”
  • Richard Brody talks about the long-awaited Criterion release of “Shoah,” and asks an important question: Will cinephilia survive without DVDs?
  • Criticwire lists its best of 2013 so far.
  • The Playlist has its usual fine mix of features and news; two highlights are a look at five movies that triumphed over bad buzz and five that did not, and a Russian teaser for Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.”
  • Two from Empire: First, will Rick Moranis be returning to the big screen in “Ghostbusters 3”? Maybe. And second, did you spot all these “Man of Steel” Easter eggs? Doubtful.
  • And lastly, even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Polaroids were stunning. I wonder what he would have made of digital.

The Summer’s Most Valuable Player is … Ethan Hawke?

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Yep. Ethan Hawke. Don’t believe me? Consider that the actor can currently be seen in one of the summer’s surprise hits, “The Purge,” and its best-reviewed film, “Before Midnight.” Okay, so “The Purge” took a rather insane plunge in week two, but in its first weekend, the horror-thriller took in $34 million on a $3 million budget. (Entertainment Weekly talked with the actor about the film and its success here.)

That’s big. Now, it is hard to calculate how much of the credit goes to Hawke, but I would not dismiss his presence. He has become a reliable, trusting actor, an audience conduit who is attractive and cool, but not as attractive and cool as he used to be. This slightly world-weary look is used to an even greater degree in “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater’s bitter, oh-so-realistic at what happened to Jesse and Celine after they actually dove into a relationship.

Julie Delpy has the “showier” role, and is marvelous. But it is Hawke who steals the movie. He goes through a wide range of emotions, from his sad expression while watching his son go through airport security to his face when Celine angrily leaves their hotel room, and sells it all.

The three “Before” films with Delpy and Linklater likely represent Hawke’s peak, and it is worth noting that the trio are credited as cowriters of the last two. But while these are the standouts, there many, many other treats to be found in the actor’s filmography.

Most of us first notice him in 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society,” but by the time of 1994’s “Reality Bites,” I already found him obnoxious. That feeling did not last, however, as “Before Sunrise” came in 1995 and the underrated “Gattaca” and “Great Expectations” came in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

The next few years saw highs (“Hamlet,” “Tape”) and lows (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), but his greatest triumph came in 2001: “Training Day.” Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, “Training Day” did offer up two meaty parts for Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar, and Hawke, who was nominated for one.

The rest of the 2000s were also dotted with success and failure. Hawke received another Academy Award nomination, this time as a screenwriter, for “Before Sunset,” and provided a stellar turn in Sidney Lumet’s final film, 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He also directed two films, albeit weakly received ones: “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” the latter based on his novel.

But the misses outnumbered the hits in this decade: “Taking Lives,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Lord of War,” “What Doesn’t Kill You,” “Daybreakers,” “Brooklyn’s Finest.” (I liked “Brooklyn’s Finest,” incidentally, although many did not.)

But last year’s “Sinister” was a truly scary smash, and this summer has finally seen him win both audiences (“The Purge”) and critics (“Before Midnight”) within days. “Midnight” will surely bring him another writing Oscar nomination, and with any luck, he will be in the Best Actor mix, too. (The film is likely to score a Best Picture nomination.)

Last week, a trailer for Hawke’s next film ran before “This is the End.” It is a “Taken”-lite thriller costarring Selena Gomez, horribly titled “Getaway.” This is Hawke back in audience-conduit mode, and something tells me it was a) cheap to make and b) will double or triple that budget in its opening weekend.

Good for Ethan Hawke, always an interesting actor, but now one who — surprisingly — has become a great one.

Ethan Hawke as Jesse in “Before Midnight”; photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

At the Drive-In: The Documentary “Going Attractions” is Here for One Night Only

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The drive-in movie theater is not dead, thankfully, but it is certainly, well, wounded. Yet the theaters maintain a certain charm, and those that still exist often serve a devoted clientele. There is nothing quite like the drive-in experience, and as long as there are cars, there should be drive-ins.

Western New York is home to Lockport’s Transit Drive-In, and I’m somewhat ashamed to note that I’ve never been there. It is one of those summertime ideas my wife and I have toyed with for years, and it likely will happen as my son ages. (My own drive-in experience is limited to two now-departed theaters, one on Ridge Road in West Seneca, the other on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga.)

The Transit Drive-In always has a stellar list of new releases — the current line-up includes “Monsters University,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “This Is The End,” “Now You See Me,” and “The Internship” — but tonight a particularly special film will be screened.

Billed as “the definitive story of the drive-in movie theater,” “Going Attractions” is a documentary about the history and current status of the drive-in, and that’s fertile ground for a doc. The film is showing at 9:15 p.m., and its director, April Wright, will be on hand to answer questions and sign posters and DVDs. “Now You See Me,” the summer’s most surprising hit, shows afterwards, at 11 p.m.

While a drive-in movie at 9:15 on a Monday is past my bedtime, I’m anxious to hear what others think of the film, and look forward to catching it at some point. I’m just as anxious to do my part in keeping the Transit Drive-In alive.

Read This: “May We Be Forgiven” is a Bleak but Compelling Story of Dysfunction

may we

One quick note on this busy Sunday: I have a review of Kat Von D’s “Go Big or Go Home” in today’s Buffalo News, so make sure to check it out — the book proved to be a pleasant surprise.

Speaking of book reviews, here is one that I wrote a few months ago, for a novel that just came back in the news in a big way. In early June, author A.M. Homes won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “May We Be Forgiven.” This is a major award, and this is a very good book. I’m not sure if a film or TV adaptation is planned, but it is certainly worthy of one.

Here is my review, from December 9, 2012:

A.M. Homes’ “May We Be Forgiven” opens with a Thanksgiving celebration from hell, a gloriously grim cornucopia of secret kisses, eye-rolling lies and unsettling commentary.

As our protagonist, Harold Silver, puts it before setting the scene, “Do you want my recipe for disaster?” That’s a good word for it. You’ll be aching for them all to choke on their turkey by page 3 — Harold included.

And that is why it’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with Homes’ novel. It is sad, darkly funny, occasionally moving, but above all, singularly unpleasant. That makes it one of 2012’s most compelling — yet undeniably dreary — literary experiences. Ultimately, it’s a great success.

Homes is the author of several acclaimed novels, most notably “The Safety of Objects,” “This Book Will Save Your Life” and “Music for Torching,” along with a memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter.”

As that title indicates, she is an adept chronicler of American familial dysfunction.

Case in point: The brothers Silver. Harold is a Nixon scholar in midlife, stuck in an awkward, childless marriage to a wife who is perennially working. (“Claire is still at the office; she is always at the office. Another man would think his wife is having an affair; I just think Claire is smart.”)

Harold’s younger brother, George, is, quite simply, nightmarish — almost unbelievably so. This was always the case, Harold explains:

“He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods.”

He was taller, stronger, more successful, and married to a woman Harold lusted after. She is Jane, and she is not above surprising Harold with a sloppy smack on the lips, while, just outside the kitchen door, her husband pontificates, her sister-in-law listens, and her children watch TV.

Whatever his flaws, Harold is our protagonist, and, when an already cracked family unit is confronted with crisis, he takes control. George is arrested, and a suburban cop explains why: “He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was still alive at the scene — in the back seat, next to the surviving boy.” After being freed by the Jaws of Life, she soon expired (“Her legs fell out of the car”), and the lives of the Silvers — all of them — will never be the same again.

George is eventually hospitalized. He has cracked, and is increasingly erratic.

But he is let out, and arrives home to find Harold asleep next to Jane, and …The result leaves Jane unconscious (and soon dead), George in even worse trouble, and Harold curiously unmoved. He is a stoic, unemotional narrator who nevertheless takes on the burden of his brother’s household.

As “May We Be Forgiven” moves forward, Harold becomes more of a father figure to his niece and nephew, but also more unpredictable.

He begins a series of random sexual encounters with women met online, yes, but also seeks out Ricardo, the child left orphaned by his brother’s recklessness, at his nephew Nate’s urging.

In the ultimate sign of “growth” — Harold does grow, with much sighing — he takes Nate, Ricardo and niece Ashley to South Africa for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah.

And then, 365 days after the Thanksgiving scene that began “May We Be Forgiven,” the novel ends.

Homes is a piercing writer, and one with the ability to craft a simple sentence with devastating effectiveness. She has written a fiercely original novel, I think, one as fractured, messy and joyous as a story of 20th century family should be.

And in Harold Silver, Homes has created a defiantly damaged American male: flawed, struggling, sexually charged, and, only after much prodding, adult enough to truly grow up.

This is an end result that is not altogether tidy, but is certainly proper. It’s not unsurprising that Homes concludes the novel with a “happy” ending, and I’m glad she did. After all that came before it, it’s not just earned — it’s downright necessary. I’m not sure the reader could handle anything less.

Rent/Stream This: 2009’s Bitter, Brilliant “In the Loop,” Co-Starring James Gandolfini

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As I mentioned yesterday, in 2009, I reviewed “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s bitter masterpiece “In the Loop” for the Buffalo News. While James Gandolfini did not have a starring role, his was a key supporting performance. The four-star (says me) film is available on Netflix Streaming, and is, without question a must-see.

“In the Loop” has been referred to as the “This is Spinal Tap” of political cinema, and that glib description is not far off. Like “Spinal Tap,” it is a comedy in which every moment of absurdist humor is completely believable. This, it seems, is our government, and it’s not pretty.

Also like “Spinal Tap,” “In the Loop” is utterly, gob-smackingly brilliant, a piercing piece of satire that is laugh-out loud funny, boldly plotted and wonderfully cast. And with the Academy Awards’ best picture category now fattened to 10, it may even find itself up for the top Oscar.

Armando Iannucci — best director’s name since Florain Henckel von Donnersmarck — is not a well-known filmmaker in the States, but fans of Brit comedy might know his work with actor Steve Coogan; they devised “Alan Partridge,” an oft-failing fake chat show host. (Add the series to your Netflix queue, now, and watch for a Coogan cameo in “Loop.”)

Tom Hollander, an actor best known for a supporting role as a stiff-upper-lipped baddie in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, is ostensibly the lead in what is really an ensemble film about diplomacy, war, manners and the culture clash that occurs whenever multiple nations are called upon to work together.

Hollander plays Simon Foster, a U.K. government minister who makes a disastrous faux pas in an interview, referring to a U.S.-backed war in an unnamed land as “unforeseeable.” This is a problem, since it’s at odds with the prime minister office’s expected stance.

Peter Capaldi, as Malcolm, the PM’s communications director, is forced to explain Simon’s comment, which is interpreted by the media as a slide-away from support for the Americans. As Capaldi, a Scottish actor who here turns cursing into a stunning art form, explains, “He did not say unforeseeable. You may have heard him say it, but he did not say it.”

It’s also the first day for Toby (Chris Addison), dubbed “Ron Weasley” by Malcolm. He’s a young aide seeking to make an impression, and finds himself joining Simon on a trip to D.C., and in the bed of another ambitious aide, played nicely by all-grown-up Anna Chlumsky (“My Girl”).

Toby tries to help Simon right himself; the wishy-washy politico is unsure which side he’s on anyway. Soon ambushed by press, Simon’s response to the “Is war unforeseeable?” question is a confused doozy: “Look, all sorts of things that are actually very likely, are also unforeseeable — for the plane in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable — but then it’s suddenly very real, and inevitable —”

The media’s follow-up question is, of course, “Are you saying the government is lost in the fog?” which leads to an even greater pearl: “To walk the war of peace, sometimes we have to be ready to climb the mountain — of conflict.”

“You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews,” judges Malcolm.

These are the Brits. The Americans, meanwhile are an equally dysfunctional group. Karen Clarke (played by a wonderful actress, the award-worthy Mimi Kennedy), is a U.S. assistant secretary. She’s one of the few arguing against conflict, and she’s joined by a well-reasoned general, played, with utter perfection, by James Gandolfini.

David Rasche, so good in the thematically and spiritually similar Coen Brothers coal-black comedy “Burn After Reading,” is the epitome of the Washington hawk. His Linton Barwick, yet another assistant secretary, is a man not above altering meeting minutes to ensure the escalation of war.

“In the Loop” perhaps sounds confusing, and in some ways it is. The dialogue is lightning-quick, the acting suitably frantic, the mood, stressed. As it should be.

Another reviewer said “In the Loop” just might be “Spinal Tap meets Strangelove.” I think it’s too soon to say, but it’s certainly one of the year’s finest, most bitter masterpieces. This one goes to 11.

James Gandolfini Won’t Fade Away

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The news of James Gandolfini’s passing seems to have hit TV and film fans quite hard — bullet-in-Big-Pussy’s-belly hard. (There are many, many fine remembrances of him across the internet; a nice list was posted on Movie City News, along with Gandolfini’s great “Sesame Street” appearance.)

A lot of that has to do with the popularity of “The Sopranos,” and his triumphant role in the HBO series. But I think his persona has played a part, as well.

He was a bear of a man — in fact, he played a character named “Bear” in 1995’s “Get Shorty — and excelled at portraying the sly brute. (See Tony Soprano, or his unforgettably evil turn in 1993’s “True Romance.”)

Yet he possessed an inherent likability, as well. We knew “T” should either be in prison or dead, but we didn’t want that to be the case. That’s due to great writing, certainly, but also due to Gandolfini’s nuanced performance. It should rank among the finest TV has ever seen.

Note that Gandolfini’s post-”Sopranos” career was wildly varied, an indicator of an actor who did not wish to be constrained by the role that made him (almost) a household name. Consider some of his post-2007 output:

2009:
“In the Loop”
“The Taking of Pelham 123”
“Where the Wild Things Are”

2010:
“Welcome to the Rileys”
“Mint Julep”

2011:
“Down the Shore”
“Cinema Verite”

2012:
“Killing Them Softly”
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Not Fade Away”

It is a fascinating list. “In the Loop” (which I reviewed for the Buffalo News upon its release in 2009; I’ll be posting the review this weekend) and the underrated “Welcome to the Rileys,” in particular, feature two of Gandolfini’s finest performances.

Look closely at 2012. I did not love “Killing Them Softly,” but Gandolfini’s battering-ram character stands out, as does his Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” is the film I really want to draw your attention to. The story of a 60s garage band’s brief brush with success is not a great film, exactly, although I would certainly call it a good one. But Gandolfini’s work as the stern father of the film’s main character is priceless, easily among his best. The ending will now seem especially poignant, I think, and that gives nothing away.

It will be difficult to watch “T” onscreen and not feel a bit sad, but isn’t that the ultimate sign of a great actor, and a beloved performer?

 

Photo from Film.com